Post-Holiday Chocolate Health Benefits

Registered dietitian and STACK Expert Katie Moore reviews the research on the health benefits of dark chocolate.

If you are looking to justify a few indulgences this holiday season, check out some recent discoveries about the health benefits of chocolate, which might improve your athletic performance as well. Remember, though, to eat only a little and avoid the junky stuff, which keeps you craving more. The chocolate should contain at least 70 percent cocoa, or you won't get any health benefits from it.

The darker the chocolate, the better

Chocolate is a combination of cocoa beans and sugar, butter, and milk. The higher the percentage of cocoa in chocolate, the greater the health benefits. Cocoa contains polyphenols such as catechins, epicatechins and—powerful antioxidant compounds, which appear to have positive effects on the body. Studies show that people who consume dark chocolate—70 percent cocoa or higher—have improved blood flow, increased brain alertness and increased flexibility of veins and arteries. Cocoa has also been associated with lower risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.

Learn more about the benefits of dark chocolate.

The caffeine in chocolate can give you a boost

Cocoa contains caffeine as well as a stimulant called theobromine. Research shows that caffeine increases brain function and lowers fatigue, which can help endurance athletes as well as sprinters feel more alert and stay powerful longer. One study following cyclers found improved performance after cocoa consumption due to increased fatty acid mobilization and spared carbohydrate stores. Another study following college males found that those who ate a chocolate bar before a moderate to intense run had lower rates of perceived exertion and more favorable lactate levels. Scientists concluded that eating a chocolate bar before exercise could increase stamina and reduce recovery.

Epicatechin may help with exercise

In another promising study, researchers gave middle-aged sedentary male mice epicatechin, a compound in cocoa, twice daily. Half of the mice exercised daily and the other half did not. After 15 days, all mice performed an exercise test. Mice who never exercised but consumed epicatechin performed better than mice not fed the compound who exercised daily. The top performers were mice who both consumed epicatechin and exercised.

The epicatechin appeared to increase capillaries as well as mitochondria, which produce cellular energy, even in mice who never ran during the 15-day study.

The ideal human dosage is 1/6th of an ounce, or half a chocolate square.

RELATED: Is Caffeine Safe for Athletes?

Chocolate milk has restorative properties

After exercise, it's imperative to repair broken down muscle and replenish depleted muscle glycogen, fluid and electrolytes to increase gains and reduce recovery time. Consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrates has been shown to be most effective. Low-fat chocolate milk has an ideal balance of the carbs and protein needed to rebuild muscle and replenish glycogen stores. Check out the video above to learn more about chocolate milk and other great foods for refueling after exercise.

If you don't like chocolate milk, try adding 3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder to oatmeal or a smoothie. The powder has 60 calories and 1.3 grams of fat.


  • Diederik, E. (2014). "Dark chocolate consumption improves leukocyte adhesion factors and vascular function in overweight men." FASEB Journal, 28(3), 1464-1473.
  • Flammer, A. (n.d.). "Dark Chocolate Improves Coronary Vasomotion And Reduces Platelet Reactivity." 2376-2382.
  • Huttemann, M. (2014). "Epicatechin is associated with increased angiogenic and mitchondrial signaling in the hindlimb of rats selectively bred for innate low running capacity." Clin. Sci., 124(11), 663-674.
  • Chen, J. (1996). "The effect of a chocolate bar supplementation on moderate exercise recovery of recreational runners." Biomed Environ Sci, 2(3), 247-255.
  • Karp, J. (2006). "Chocolate Milk as a Post-Exercise Recovery Aid." International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 16, 78-91.
  • Berry, N., et. al. (2010) "Impact of cocoa flavanol consumption on blood pressure responsiveness to exercise." 103(10):1480-4.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock